Green Interview: Mariela McIlwraith, Director of Industry Advancement, Events Industry Council

June 25, 2018

It goes without saying that environmental and social advocates tend to be incredibly passionate people driven by a burning desire to change the world in a positive way. Mariela McIlwraith is such an individual. As the Director of Industry Advancement for the Events Industry Council, this Toronto-based events and sustainability expert leads up the organization’s sustainability committee, which works to create the educational tools and resources needed to move the industry forward in a more environmentally conscious direction.

TSNN enjoyed sitting down with this very dedicated and knowledgeable events professional to find out what drew her to sustainability, what our industry’s biggest challenges are in this arena and how EIC is helping to make greening an easier – and someday commonplace – part of planning and executing events.

TSNN: When and why did you begin working with sustainability in the events industry and what does your role at EIC entail?

Mariela McIlwraith:I started working in the events industry 20 years ago and in sustainable events about 15 years ago. It brought together a number of different areas of interest for me, not only the events industry and how events can support organizational objectives but also protecting our environment and supporting strong and inclusive communities, and more broadly, helping economies to thrive. 

In my role at EIC, I work closely with two committees of volunteer experts, or thought leaders. We kind of have these two industry think tanks: one on sustainability and the other on industry insight. Our sustainability committee works to develop the tools and resources needed for industry sustainability education for a broad range of experience levels. We offer monthly webinars, white papers, how-to guides and infographics, and we also do a monthly newsletter. During our monthly meetings, we’ve switched gears so we’re looking at different themes that are challenges for our industry and how we can respond.

TSNN: How did you become interested in environmental causes and specifically sustainability in events?

MM: My interest in sustainability and the events industry sort of came around at the same time. I’ve always had an interest in international topics and international relations, and sustainability from an environmental as well as a social perspective. What I found when starting out as a meeting planner and often working with events that had very tight budgets, was that sustainability was a great way of saving on costs. We started noticing lots of opportunities to cut back on waste by eliminating items that don’t necessarily enhance the end result of the event, looking at budgets with a critical eye and asking, “how does this budget item contribute to organizational objectives, are there alternatives that are good for the environment that can help cost-savings or can we just eliminate them altogether?” We saw this happen first and most often with eliminating water bottles, as there’s a huge cost savings for events that do that. 

TSNN: What are you finding to be the industry’s biggest green challenges right now?

MM: We used to talk quite a bit about diversion rates and those are very important, but we need to start thinking not just about what we do with waste but also how we eliminate waste to begin with, so looking at ways to not just recycle but also encourage more reuse – repurposing and upcycling.

With upcycling, you’re taking left over items from your events and turning them into new products. For example, you might take banners and turn them into tote bags, so they’re new products with additional value. With recycling, you’re taking items and breaking them down into materials that can be formed into other things, such as turning paper into pulp. We need to not only look at how we can keep things from ending up in landfill but also how we support more economies, for example, engaging social enterprise and supporting communities through donation programs. There are lots of opportunities to do better in that sense. 

On the social side, how do we make for more welcoming environments? We often talk about meeting accessibility requirements and we absolutely have to do that, but can we also go beyond the idea of simply meeting what we’re legally required to do, go back to our roots in hospitality and think about how we can create environments that are welcoming to everyone? Part of that comes from addressing our own unconscious bias when we’re designing events. So, instead of designing events for ourselves, creating great events that are welcoming to everyone by leveraging ideas such as universal design – designing an event in such a way that everyone can participate in a full and dignified manner from the get-go rather than making accommodations after the fact.

TSNN: When and why did the Events Industry Council assimilate the Green Meetings Industry Council as well as rebrand from the Convention Industry Council? 

MM: The Green Meeting Industry Council became a part of the Convention Industry Council (CIC) in February of 2016. Since then, CIC has rebranded as the Events Industry Council and it includes Sustainability as one of our four areas of focus. Bringing together these two organizations allows us to return to driving sustainability education and innovation with the support and weight of the EIC behind it. 

The EIC has had a long-standing commitment to sustainability. As of part of our Events Industry Council Industry Insights (formerly APEX), the EIC published the first white paper on “green meeting” practices and developed with GMIC partnership the standards that became the APEX/ASTM Sustainable Meetings Standards in 2012. We believe success comes through collaboration and with this opportunity, we will be better able to advocate and educate on sustainability through EIC and its member organizations.

TSNN: Since the rebrand, what has EIC been doing to further the cause of sustainability and what are its key objectives?

MM: In the past two years, we’ve produced a number of free resources. With the support of the Thailand Convention & Exhibition Bureau, we’ve relaunched the Sustainable Event Professional Certificate course that we’re now offering in conjunction with industry events including the CMP Conclave, NACE Experience Conference and in conjunction with the Sustainable Brands Conference. We also released an in-depth study on the state of sustainability in the events industry in 2016 and just recently released updated data from a 2018 survey that we conducted in January. 

The most recent data shows that some practices have become mainstream, including using water stations instead of water bottles and offering vegetarian and allergy-responsible menus. We’ve seen a huge movement toward eliminating straws, which can go a long way toward eliminating single-use plastics at events. We also found opportunities for event professionals to support their organizations’ sustainability mandates through implementing socially and environmentally responsible practices for their events, as well as opportunities for suppliers to better meet their clients’ needs by more consistently communicating about their sustainability programs. 

TSNN: What are EIC’s sustainability objectives going forward and do you have anything coming down the pipeline to support this mission?

MM: Very simply, we aim to advance the business of events and the business in events through the greater adoption of sustainable practices that support a thriving economy, communities and the environment. We’ll achieve this by continuing to offer education and resources through our website, at our events and in collaboration with our member organizations. We’re also in the process of redesigning the APEX ASTM Sustainable Event Standards to improve their ease-of-use and adoptability, and to increase interoperability with other industry sustainability standards. We also celebrate creativity and collaboration through the IMEX-EIC Innovation in Sustainability Award, which was (most recently) presented at IMEX Frankfurt in May. 

TSNN: With so much focus on budgets and ROI, how is EIC making the case that sustainability deserves just as much attention?

MM: One of our biggest opportunities to transform the industry through sustainability is to effectively communicate the business value. Too often, there are misconceptions that usually involve the idea that it costs more and that while nice to do, doesn’t add value. It’s time to change these perceptions and fortunately, we have the data to prove it. 

To start with, sustainability saves money because, at its core, it calls for the more efficient use of resources and with efficiency comes savings. So, if you’re cutting back on printing, or ordering lunch-sized portions instead of dinner-sized portions for your menus, you’re cutting back on costs. 

While not all sustainable practices will save money, many will. Through our newsletters and webinars, we are regularly communicating the business value of sustainability and practical ways that you can improve your financial bottom line with sustainable event practices. When we did our survey, we found that most of us either need sustainability to be cost-saving or cost-neutral and fortunately, there are a plethora of ways to do that.  

TSNN: For show organizers who want to green their events but aren’t sure how to get started, what would you suggest they do? 

MM: It’s easy to get started and immediately show improved performance not only for social and environmental metrics but also financial ones. A good place to start is by helping to address food waste by cutting back on quantities, reviewing guarantees and communicating about your food waste campaign to your attendees. Vegetarian meals are usually more affordable and can cut down on your carbon and water footprint. Consider offering a vegetarian lunch one day, perhaps paired on a day when you know you’ll have a substantial banquet and use that savings to upgrade the evening event with organic or other sustainable options. Another easy action is to reduce or eliminate single-use plastics, such as replacing bottled water with water stations and glassware, or simply asking for no straws to be used at your event.

We all have a responsibility to look after our planet and the people who are on it, and we have a responsibility to create safe, welcoming and protected environments. As events professionals, we have a big challenge in that we tend to create temporary environments, so we’re setting things up that are only designed to last for 2-3 days. We need to redesign our approach so that we’re not only thinking about how to get everything we need for our events but also what happens to all those items afterward. 


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